What is a simple question in form briefly stopped Ricky Jean Francois before he recalibrated and launched into a long answer.
Sitting at his locker last season, the Washington Redskins defensive lineman said he had never been asked that particular question, resulting in a dual rarity: something during the grind of a season was new, and the loquacious Francois was stumped for words after being asked, “Do you trust the media?”
Focus on how and why the media perform its job in a certain manner has never been higher after the recent presidential election vaulted the topic into the American mainstream. That, in part, prompted the question of trust to a handful of prominent local athletes. Their answer can be summarized in one word: “No.”
After saying he does not trust the media, Francois explained his seeds of mistrust were first sewn in college, when he was a star lineman for LSU. His 2010 entrance into the NFL only increased his lack of faith in the media. In a nutshell, Francois, who received last season’s Redskins Media Good Guy Award, thinks desire for a better job drives reporters to inaccurate stories.
“It’s levels, so everybody trying to get their ranking up,” Francois said. “Trying to move up from the position you’re in to go to ESPN or Fox or whatever big news station it is and they got to move up to another news station. At the end of the day, everybody wants that big story, everybody wants what’s going on, even if they have to make up a story themselves. They could make up a rumor, like, ‘Eh, such and such happened.’ The next thing you know, everybody in the locker room talking about it. It’s already made from a media source. That’s why I hate when I hear that. People like, ‘Well, a source …’ It wasn’t a source. If you got somebody out of the locker room who snitched or either you made it up yourself and you just want to see how somebody bite.
“You’ve got to remember: They’re human, we’re human. But, at the same time, they got a job to do. Their job by any means is to get a story. You don’t get no story, you’re fired. But, you’ve got to get a story no matter how you got to get it. That’s why some people in this locker room keep it short and direct. Because if you’re short and direct, or if you don’t say nothing, you can’t get nothing. But, if I give you ammunition, you’re going to start shooting and letting go because now it’s going to make the front of the USA Today, Washington Post, New York Times. Everybody wants to be that reporter that gets that story. So, the trust level is out of there.”
Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman carry nuanced opinions in the Nationals’ clubhouse where the two have taken different paths to veteran status. Scherzer has played for three teams in nine seasons. Zimmerman has only played in the District since being drafted in 2005, becoming entrenched in the Nationals’ brand.
Both make themselves available to speak with reporters whenever they are able. Each seems to realize that their position with the club — Scherzer as its highest-paid player and ace and Zimmerman as its longstanding representative — means they will be relied on to handle a large chunk of the media load for the team. Those responsibilities, plus time in the league, have allowed them to understand the difference between local beat writers, national baseball people, and media members who primarily work on television or the radio. What it hasn’t changed is their view of the group.
“Do you trust a politician?” Scherzer said when asked if he trusts the media. “That’s my answer [laughs]. It’s the same way. Obviously, there’s people who I’ve worked with over the years that I think do an outstanding job of reporting, having accuracy in your reports. Being fair. I’m not saying media can’t slam players at the professional level — they can. Taking quotes out of context is probably one of my most frustrating things I’ve dealt with and it’s happened to me. That’s where it goes back to the politician. Yeah, there’s some good politicians out there and there’s other politicians that you hate.”
Zimmerman’s relationship with the media has become more complicated in the last 16 months. In December of 2015, he was linked to performance-enhancing drugs by a loosely and questionably sourced Al Jazeera America documentary (his accuser recanted before the documentary aired, among other issues). Major League Baseball investigated the allegations and found no wrongdoing. Zimmerman vehemently denied the allegation from the start, plus took the rare step of filing a defamation suit against Al Jazeera. That case is still slogging through the federal court system.
The incident changed Zimmerman’s perception of the media — to a degree. Really, it just reaffirmed the baselines he was already working from.
“I think the easy answer is no because you’re just … you’re hesitant to tell people things because you don’t want to be portrayed through the media as someone … you don’t want them to kind of take what you say and write what they want with it,” Zimmerman said. “I guess that’s why everyone says no. But on the other hand, me being here for 12 years, I’ve created relationships with a lot of people who have written about the team for a long time who I would absolutely trust to talk to. I think just saying no overall is kind of hard for me to do because I do trust — just like anything. You create a relationship and you trust some people and you don’t trust people.
“You’ll be sitting there at your locker talking with someone and they start talking and they do the thing where they turn the recorder off and they say, ‘Between me and you…’ and then you’ve told them something, then somehow that gets out, then obviously you don’t trust that guy anymore or you’ve talked with people before and you understand they don’t say things, so it’s kind of on a case-by-case basis.
“I think the media has changed so much over the last decade, too. Because there’s so much social media. And it’s almost like it’s a race to be first to report things, so a lot of people will take chances they probably wouldn’t have taken before. I think the headline will be on the front page, then, if they mess up, the retraction or the apology always on the back page. I think that rubs some people the wrong way because it used to be you’d have two or three guys and they would write on the team and there wasn’t really a race to report because of social media or blogs. I think those guys felt a little bit more secure. Now, I think they have to take chances they probably wouldn’t have to take before. So, that kind of puts us on the defensive because you don’t want to get caught up in something like that.”
Wizards center Marcin Gortat echoed much of what was said by Scherzer, Zimmerman and Francois. His general belief is that a reporter will choose to chase stories, particularly in the offseason, in order to create a frenzy.
“My answer is no,” Gortat said. “I don’t trust media. Unfortunately, I’m speaking about entire media. Even though there is a lot of good reporters, a lot of good people — they don’t want to and they are not trying to throw you under the bus. But just overall, I would just say that I’m coming to the point where I’m thinking if there is a reporter’s ass on the line and my ass on the line, he ain’t going to worry about me. He’s going to worry about himself. This is how it works.
“Obviously we all know we have to pay attention to what we’re saying to the media. I’ve mentioned this to many people and I’ve said this many times already, I’ve made many mistakes to the media because I just basically say truth. I got no filter. I say a lot of things I’m not supposed to say, even if they hurt. I’m most critical about myself first of all. Second of all, I’m critical about stuff that’s going on around or is going on in the team or going on with certain players. I’m always honest about that, but, end of the day, I just don’t trust media.”
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